Preposterous Universe

Monday, March 29, 2004

Tomorrow Brian Greene will be visiting Chicago as part of a book tour. Brian is an accomplished string theorist, but best known as the author of the popular book The Elegant Universe, which last year was made into a NOVA special by PBS. Brian's new book is The Fabric of the Cosmos, which I have bought but not yet had a chance to look at, although I'm sure it's quite good. (Full disclosure: I know Brian a little bit, and my name even appears [misspelled] in the acknowledgments section of his book.) One of the reasons his books sell so many copies is that he really puts a fantastic amount of work into explaining recondite physics ideas in a way anyone can understand.

The reaction of professional scientists to popularization is an interesting and disturbing one. You would think that scientists would be overjoyed when someone with talent and charisma takes the time to explain their work to a wider audience. It's at the very least good for the field, and one could argue that it's the entire point of research in areas like cosmology and fundamental physics that are far removed from any imagined technological application. The reason we are paid to think about string theory and dark energy is because people are generally curious about the deep questions from which they originate, and it only makes sense that we would make an effort to tell people what we've found.

I vividly remember an incident in a California bookstore soon after the Elegant Universe TV special, late last year. There was a big pile of copies of Brian's book, and the pile was noticed by a boy who couldn't have been more than ten years old. He exclaimed to his mother, standing nearby:
"Mom, mom, look, it's the Elegant Universe book! We've got to get this for Dad!"

"Sure. What is the book about, anyway?"

"It's about string theory! He'll love it!"
Any professional physicist should be thrilled to think that ten-year-olds are getting excited about science this way.

But two things get in the way: jealousy and dignity. The jealousy is obvious; researchers don't necessarily like it when they see their colleagues spend time in the spotlight. They could imagine themselves there, or wonder why their research isn't featured more prominently. I've heard extremely famous scientists complain about the NOVA series in ways that were couched in generalities, but amounted to whining about the lack of credit given to them (or their close friends). In academia, of course, attribution of credit for work that you've done is the coin of the realm, and scientists naively expect that the same standards should hold in popular media. So anyone who seems to be appearing in newspapers and TV more often than they should tends to rile up their colleagues, who can respond in remarkably petty ways.

The dignity issue is trickier. Effective pedagogy sometimes calls for dramatic flourishes, or for whiz-bang special effects, or for highlighting aspects of science that might not be most important to the scientists themselves. Stooping to such levels can elicit disdain from your colleagues, often quite explicitly. I remember a workshop on dealing with the media at a meeting of Packard Fellows, supposedly some of the best young scientists around. When asked what concerns they had, a large number said they wouldn't think of talking to journalists, for fear that their senior colleagues would think they weren't serious scientists. It's part of a self-destructive attitude that scientists are going to have to get over if they want to continue to ask for public money, not to mention fulfill their obligation to share their discoveries with the wider world.

I just noticed that the amazon.com page for The Fabric of Spacetime says that six different people recommended The Privileged Planet as additional reading. A brief glance reveals that this book is ridiculous intelligent-design propaganda. Obviously someone had the bright idea of using amazon.com recommendations as a way of leading the unwary away from evil secular physics and toward the light.

P.S.: This blog owes its title indirectly to the Elegant Universe. The idea was, only a string theorist could think that our universe was "elegant," and only because they never went out and actually looked at it. Get it?

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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